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Writings from the Open Institute, 2002


Nancy Gerber ~ A Snapshot of a Tuscan Trip
Shoua Moua ~ The Fairest of Us All: A Childhood Memory
Nancy Glades ~ The Guardian Angel of the Sanctuary of the Frog, Clarkia, Idaho, 1958
Janelle Hallberg ~ Testing the Tobacco/Oreo Hypothesis

 A Snapshot of a Tuscan Trip
© Nancy Gerber, 2002

The tiny fortress crowned the distant hill as if suspended over a grassy patchwork quilt piled upon the horizon. I thought it dreamlike, but I was on an incredible adventure. My sister and I journeyed to an ancient walled city on top of a verdant hillside one spring. We left Minnesota in March with piles of snow and wind chills requiring heavy coats to arrive in Italy where flowers bloomed and grass was green. A tour bus took us through the rolling hills of sunflowers, vineyards of aged grapevines, and orchards of twisted olive trees to view the Italian countryside.

Timeless pictures framed by the bus window blurred our place in time as the tour guide narrated the quaint images. Women with aprons carried baskets into the farmyards to gather eggs and herbs. Flocks of chickens wandered in neat rows of vegetables and laundry hung on the clotheslines. Cyprus trees stood at attention along the long driveways to terra cotta houses like lines of unkempt emerald soldiers. The huge stone villas have stood for centuries providing shelter for the daily lives of their Tuscan residents. Finally the bus bulging with tourists and shopping bags started to wind up a narrow dirt road to a fortress where we can walk about and browse the shops of San Campaniano.

The journey continued on foot up the winding brick path into the village. The towering medieval walls once protected the villagers from the arrows and cannons of its enemies. The strategic spaces in the handmade bricks allowed arrows to exit and provided opportunities to pour boiling oil on villains who might attempt to scale the wall. The foreigners of current day are welcomed to stroll through the gigantic arch with massive wooden doors more than 20 feet tall. Pedestrians and occasional Lilliputian cars travel together along bumpy brick pathways unencumbered by rules. Shops bursting with local crafts line the maze of narrow roads. The bottles of olive oil, local wine, and cheeses hang in windows as the fragrance of deep dark cappuccino pushes out the door. Real wild boars with coarse black hair mounted on pedestals flank the doorway of a pasta shop. The brightly colored pasta has lines and dots created with pigments from octopus and shrimp.

San Campaniano is known for pottery. Shop after shop bursting with brilliant earthenware adorned with luscious fruits and vegetables. The craftsmanship is extraordinary making it difficult to consume the variety of ceramic goodies and choose just one to squeeze in my luggage for the journey home. I select a plate with sunflowers and lemons then resume the trek to the top. Towering above the shops window boxes of flagrant flowers drop their sweet fragrance on those who wander below. We peer briefly down the dark streets that twist and turn into narrow alleyways as we pass beckoning shop windows.
At the end of the path the hill is topped with a massive tower built to provide a secure view of the surrounding countryside. The sprawling quilt of crops and pastures meet the cloudless sky with tidy sections of life and hope stretching for as far as the eye can see. In one large grassy square there are hundreds of white sheep grazing, while another is decorated with swirls of dark rows of newly plowed earth. The next hill hosts an ancient cathedral and a graveyard, a museum of torture. The museum walls contain the wet dank air and gruesome exhibits of deceased devices displaying a sordid past.

Our time was up and our coach was about to continue the journey. We ran through the fortress of ancient enchantments and horrors like chubby Cinderellas racing to catch a ride to our own place and time. Though I visited San Campaniano for a few brief hours I can revisit it at will by closing my eyes and reflecting upon the mirror of my memory to produce a vivid image of a time and place so different from home.


The Fairest of Us All: A Childhood Memory
© Shoua Moua, 2002

There she was, The Judge: mean-faced, a black and white Bic pen stuck between her right earlobe and random strands of her limp hair, with a small notebook in hand, her legs crossed, and sitting on the edge of her soft seat, waiting like a wicked spoiled queen with too much authority to be served. She was, at that moment, the epitome of all biased beauty pageant judging my 9-year-old mind could imagine. I stood there, the tallest of us three sisters, representing my favorite state of sunny, trendy California. Wrapped around me was an elegant hand-me-down kind of evening gown that I custom made to fit me perfectly: a red and blue floral print one should straight fashion statement made of the extra flat sheet on my bed and held together by a big white pin in the back and a knot on the upper right shoulder. My long sweeping paper name tag with sparkly glue letters spelling out my state was attached to my right shoulder and lower hip by two burnt red safety pins, the kind that would affix extra beads in a small plastic bag to fancy dresses.

I had a foxy sleek high ponytail on the back of my head and two of my oldest sister Xia’s funky double hoop gold earrings dangling from my small ears, bopping on my shoulders. Looking otherwise really glamorous in my mind, I was as nervous as a stray cat. Although this was my third pageant, The Judge didn’t give me a good score for the walk and chuckled a little bit when I strutted out in my yellow and white bathing suit on the closet runway that reached to the middle of our bedroom. I knew that if I really wanted to win this pageant, this time I had to impress her with my talent, something hidden that she would never expect I ever had. Standing there, I thought long and hard, because, after all, The Judge, the evil and snotty spoiled judge who always got to be the judge because she said so, was my older sister. Also because this was the third boring Saturday afternoon that we had this pageant this summer, the Miss Hmong Girl of America, in our bedroom. She had seen all of my talents. For the first pageant I danced a traditional dance, which was beaten by my younger sister Marly’s flexible cartwheel. In the second pageant, I played a tweaky, yet exciting, a full-of-surprises interpretation of Mary Had a Little Lamb on my clarinet, which was again beaten by my other younger sister Sandy’s version of the exact dance I did in the first pageant. The Judge simply stated they had more talent than me. This time I was determined to sweep this part of the competition, since it seemed that the evil judge hadn't changed her horrible, unfair assessment of me in the other parts of today’s competition. As we all stood there, waiting our turn to do our talent for The Judge, I felt the fire hydrant read burning passion surge and wash over me as my eyes narrowed and put into clear focus my plan for battle.

As I stood there, waiting for The Judge to find her pen so she could finish writing our names on the sheets of notebook paper that she’d write our score and wave in our faces after we were done, I glanced at my competition. The same two girls that I’ve competed with before related to my by my father, separated by a different mother.

Sandy, a year older than Marly and two years younger than me, stood next to my left wearing the most envious dress of us all. I knew that her glasses saw things we people without glasses didn’t see, like the bags of cookies that her mom always hid behind the white paper flour bag slumped over on the second shelf of the condiments cabinet and this dress, a yard or two of black sparkly velvet that my mom had rolled up and tucked in her sewing basket. The fabric was left over from Xia’s Hmong costume that my mom had finished sewing a few weeks ago. However, Sandy, in that totally Hollywood-esque gown, still looked every bit the dorky sister she was so proud to be with her nose in a book every time of everyday. When we called her name to play beauty pageant with us today, we had to poke her on the shoulder a couple of times to get her to look up at us. Even then, it took a few more minutes for her to soak in what our request was because she often was confused and disoriented coming out of her fantasy world and back into our sisterhood reality.

Marly, the youngest of us three at 7 years old, is Miss Oklahoma. Wearing a generously long white bedsheet toga-styled dress, her long black hair was braided into two braids and then pulled and spun into a bun at the crown of her head. She said she wanted the bun to be high enough to hold the aluminum foil crown that she had won in the last two times we did this and was told through the grapevine might get to wear again. She stood next to me on my right and looked so much like a natural beauty contestant, standing with her small head, skinny neck, and sharp shoulders straight upward, as if held up by three strings. She looked straight ahead at The Judge with her small, icy-blue and brown shadowed eyes (we did our own makeup), not a bit afraid.

But there we all were, made-up in fancy dresses we made ourselves with no scissors, needle or thread, hear up and out of our heavily painted faces, waiting the long dreadful talent competition. After what seemed like a whole movie could have been watched, The Judge finally shook the little Kleenex box with our states scribbled on little sheets of paper. Miss California was called first.

I smiled and steeped forward. I grabbed the big magic marker that was on the floor and began my talent. “I believe the children are our future. Treat them well and let them lead the way,” I belted. I sang Whitney Houston better than Whitney Houston. I walked back and forth, even held my hand out in front of me. I held notes long and was dramatic, just like in her video. When I was done, I bowed my head so deep and over I could almost touch my knees with my head. The Judge clapped two polite claps and the two other contestants followed with small faint claps. I rose, with blood rushing back down from my head to my feet, and felt like a winner, especially when I saw that I got a 9.2 score.

Miss Texas, in her velvety gown, was next. She too also sang. I wasn’t surprised. She usually is deep in thought in her book that she had been reading and so does thing on the spur of the moment. She sang Miss Mary Mack and snapped her fingers to the beat. She was off a few lines and had to stop to refresh her memory of where she was in the song. I chuckled but The Judge didn’t. Of course not. Miss Texas, in all of her dorkiness, still got a 9.0.

It was Miss Oklahoma’s turn. The Judge’s favorite. When she was called, she stepped forward, slowly raised the big magic marker and whimpered in a small voice that she forgot her talent. Miss Texas and I both looked at each other. I smiled but Miss Texas, with the look as if she had just seen a ghost float through midair, ran up to her sister and said that she needed a commercial break to help out her little sister. The Judge nodded in agreement and that was it. I screamed from the back row, turned and grabbed a white plastic hanger as my pointer.

“You are so not fair! I hate you guys! You guys suck! If she doesn’t’ have a talent, she gets a zero! She gets a zeeeeerrooooooow!” I shrieked as I made two zeros with both of my hands.

Miss Oklahoma started to cry. The Judge got up and grabbed my hanger and whacked me on my arm.

“Shut up, Shoua! Gosh. I’m going to go to a commercial break because I need to pee. NOT because Marly needs it. I am the judge, not you!” She arched over me and held up the hanger over my head.

I stood right up, nearly bumping my head on her chin, and as The Judge turned away, I ran up and yanked her ponytail down as hard as the muscles I made in gym class that year allowed me. She spun around and slapped my right cheek. I yelped out the loudest “Owwww!” At that moment, Miss Texas and Miss Oklahoma jumped onto the bed and rushed back to the pillows. Miss Oklahoma was still whimpering. Tears filled my eyes but I was determined not to lose this part of the competition so I smeared the salty pink tears from my eyes and, with my shaky finger, point at Miss Oklahoma and sputtered, “You, you got a zero because you don’t have a talent.”

“Na ah, she gets a commercial break because I need to go pee,” The Judge confirmed.

Just then I felt my chance of winning this pageant melting through the open cracks of my broken ehart, when suddenly, my mom burst through our bedroom door, unexpected like a firecracker. “What are you girls crying about?” She quickly glanced around the pale messy room and saw exactly what we were doing. Without letting any of us explain, she snapped, “Get down from the bed, take off that fabric and jump in the bath, all of you. Who told you to play this game? I told you that laughter always turns into tears. I knew when you four all giggled your way up here, I knew that one of you would soon be crying. Now if you want to be queen for a day, you can stop it because you are not going to get it.” She rushed around the room, picking up the scraps of paper and the markers we taped on the floor to mark our runway. I stared at The Judge and she winced at me, evilly.

“But Mom, it wasn’t my fault because, because, because, it was her fault! It was all her fault,” I screamed as I ran up the side of the bed to bring the spotlight on Marly, the former Miss Oklahoma.
My mom, in all of her petiteness, arms full of markers and papers, shook her head and scooted The Judge out of the door to go to the bathroom to get a bath running for all of us. She dumped all of our pageantry into the bathroom trash and came back to grab the aluminum crown. The three of us still in the room, especially the two of us still double breathing our tears, watched as my mom picked up the most prized possession. She looked at it for a bit, and then, as if by the direction of destiny herself, simply placed it on my head. My angry eyes and hot cheeks lit up and I slowly reached up and touched the crown. Miss Oklahoma started crying again and Miss Texas just looked on as I smiled to imaginary people around me and proclaimed, “I’ve won. I’ve won. Look, I’ve won.” Yes, I’d finally won. I’d finally won. I’d finally won.


The Guardian Angel of the Sanctuary of the Frogs, Clarkia, Idaho, 1958

© Nancy Glades, 2002

I was six. I would be seven in the fall. You might think I would need a guardian angel, living in this rough high country. But this is the story of how I became one instead.

It was spring, still cold high in the Rocky Mountains in Idaho, on the ranger station where I lived. The snow that winter climbed up the cabin walls almost to the roof and closed both school and highway to St. Marie’s, not once but many times. My first grade experience had been interrupted by that, which concerned my parents, but I love snow days at home with Mom, my older sister Linda and my baby brother Gary.

We girls were often sent outside to play, usually with Camille who also lived on the ranger station since her dad worked with my dad. She was older than me but not as old as Linda. She had a bratty little brother who was not allowed to play with us. He was too young and might wonder off into the woods. We were glad.

That spring my favorite activity was catching baby frogs in big plastic ice cream buckets. The tiniest frog legs sprouted beside their fat tadpole tails. In just a few days, the tails got smaller and the legs got bigger and there were perfect, tiny frogs. We had learned not to keep them long because they would die. We tried it only once.

The best place to catch frogs was a small pond near our cabin on the road that circled around the whole ranger station. The pond evaporated in the hot part of the summer, but with the snow melt of that spring, it was filled with water. We had to wear rubber boots and jackets to play outside, and if you got wet, you froze really fast. We had sometimes caught a dozen or so tiny black frogs in an hour between the three of us.

One sunny Saturday we went eagerly to the pond, buckets in hand, and there was suddenly a huge swish and the long black shadow of a water snake appeared in the pond. Worse, he was trying to eat the baby frogs! We suspected he might have already eaten some.

“Quick, catch them! “ Linda yelled to Camille, our alarm building. “Nancy, you get up on the tire! We’ll put them in there!” There was a big tire in the pond, with a gash in it, lying sideways in the water. Since I knew I was a slower frog catcher than the bigger girls, I willingly stood on the tire, holding the gash closed, making a safe haven for the rescued frogs.

“Gotcha!” Camille shouted, as she quickly scooped the bucket, sloshing water into the tire, delivering three more frogs to safety. I stood strongly, bravely, against the top of the rubber tire, holding it shut where the gash was. “Over there! Watch out! she hollered. The snake was still swimming around, disappearing but then suddenly showing up right beside me. Soon every shadow looked like a snake. I was glad to be high on the tire in my rubber boots, not scooping water in buckets with that ominous, swishing, hungry shadow around.

We worked hard, yelling frantically to each other, freezing our feet and hands in the icy water. I thought the frogs must be as scared as I was, maybe more since they might be eaten! As the spring sun passed over us and afternoon came on, more and more frogs were safe in the tire. The trouble was, we were all getting tired and cold, and the water snake was still out there. How long could we last?

To this day, I don’t know if the bigger girls yelled for help or if one of our parents finally came to see what we were doing. But seemingly out of nowhere, a man who worked on the ranger station sauntered up the dirt road, swinging his big fireman’s ax by his side. He seemed amused at the sight of us. He caught the writhing, shiny black snake by easily lifting it out of the pond with the ax handle. He killed it by stomping on it with his heavy boot and chopping its head off. At least I think that is how it died. I couldn’t watch or look at the carcass when it was still.

Catching my breath, I leaped down from my perch as the guardian angel of the frog sanctuary. The frogs didn’t need me any more. They were safe in the whole pond, indeed the whole mountain. Things seemed hushed as the day took on its normal sounds --- birds, the wind, a truck on the highway. We were hoarse from shouting, wet and chilled as we trudged back to our cozy log homes. We didn’t talk much, reliving in our minds the excitement of the day. And yet we shared a glow of exhausted satisfaction. I thought that many small frogs slept better that night because of our efforts. I know three young girls did.


Testing the Tobacco/Oreo Hypothesis

© Janelle Hallberg, 2002

Until I was 8 years old, I believed chewing tobacco and Oreo cookies probably tasted the same. Visually, it’s not that much of a stretch: they both share a dark chocolate appearance. I know that tobacco lacks the white “stuff,” but aside from that, there simply had to be a corollary between the similar Oreo/tobacco coloring and Oreo/tobacco taste. Pinching the crumbs from the bottom of the Oreo bag and placing them between my cheek and gum seemed to reinforce my notion that the tobacco I witnessed by dad placing between his cheek and gum must be chocolatey-rich too!

However, any attempts on my part to get a smidgen of the real thing were thwarted by its placement in DAD’S CUPBOARD, which contained all the adult paraphernalia we kids were to “stay the heck out of.” It was the tree in the Garden of Eden. You may scavenge in ANY cupboard in the kitchen, bit if you rummage through the cupboard that contains the knowledge of good and evil, on the day of your forage, you shall die! But the temptation to try out this theory was strong and the neighborhood serpent, Jeffy Nelson, was very persuasive.

I was basically a good kid. I didn’t have a lot of choice: five older siblings knighted by Mom and Dad and endowed with inalienable rights to discipline me when they deemed fit, and then turn me over to the King and Queen for further disciplinary procedures all forced me to raise the white flag of submission when I was 3.

Jeff was raised decidedly differently. While I lived in fear of the wooden spoon rash, he feared only, “Jeffy, sweetie, we don’t do that. Now you have to take a time out in your room.” No wonder it was his ingenious plan to take a box of “Snuff” from DAD’S CUPBOARD upon hearing my tobacco/Oreo hypothesis. What did he have to lose? If we got caught, who would get The Spoon? My parents wouldn’t beat the neighbor kids, though I’m sure the desire was there, especially when it came to Jeffy
Trembling, I slid a chair up against the dryer as DAD’S CUPABOARD hovered ominously overhead, Mom and Dad’s command ringing in my ears.

“Is anyone coming?” I whispered again to Jeffy as he kept watch for wandering siblings and parents.

“No! Dang it! Now hurry up!”

Like he had anything to fear! But with his keeping watch, I was partially convinced we could pull it off. It struck me then as it did many times that having a sibling closer to my age could really aid in my escapes from the Sibling Knights.

“Did you get it yet?”

“No!” I said as I crawled to a standing position on the dryer and uneasily opened the CUPBOARD. Scavenging rapidly for the package containing the round Copenhagen boxes, I quickly ripped one out of an opened pack, hoping against hope that Dad didn’t keep count of his remaining boxes: there used to be four, how there were only three.

“I got it!” I said as I crept in reverse from the dryer onto the chair and, with palpable relief, to the kitchen floor.

“Where should we go to try it?” Jeffy asked, his curiosity swelling.

The machine shed immediately came to mind with its mischief-inviting dark, abandoned recesses, so Jeffy and I se off on a casual speed-walk through the yard, past the calf pens and barn to the machine shed. (We kept the “snuff” in Jeffy’s front pants pocket because placing it in the rear pocket would be a dead give-away.)

“Hey, what are you two up to?” Uh-oh! It was my brother, Sir Carl.

“Janelle was going to show me the kittens she found in the shed,” Jeffy said with eager innocence. I was filled with admiration; it typically took me a full minute to create that confident a lie.

“Just stay off the machinery,” Carol commanded as we set off at an “eager-to-see kittens” type of run.

Following the maze left between tractors, the baler, the combine, the plow, the spindly-wheel thing, Jeffy and I found the perfect spot for the Orea/tobacco taste test: way back between the silage wagons.

Jeffy took the box out of his pocket. “How do you open it?”

“Here! I’ve seen Dad do it.” I rested it in my palm and twisted the decorated tin-foil-like cap off. Jeffy was impressed. He could lie well, but I could open “snuff” boxes!

“It doesn’t really smell like Oreos,” I noted as Jeffy and I stood head to head staring at the black, moist concoction.

“It does look kinda good though,” he said. “Let’s try some together.”

Being sure he carefully followed my educated example, we each took a large pinch and pushed and stuffed it in the area between our bottom lip and lower gum. And then we waited.

It didn’t take long for this acrid fluid to spread through my mouth. My eyes and nose felt like I swallowed a lit match. Seemingly voluntarily, my mouth shot open like the lid on Mom’s teakettle and these black particles shot out, and some seemed to be climbing out over my lips and down my chin. The coughing and eye-watering spasm was interrupted by a holler from the shed entry.

“Jeffy and Janelle! Mom wants you down by the house. She has to bring Jeffy home now.” This time it was my other brother Daniel.

I managed a wheezing, “We’re coming!” Miraculously, it must have been convincing. We were never caught. But when Jeffy heard Dan yell, he panicked and swallowed it.

“You swallowed it!” I exclaimed in sheer terror. I felt what it could do in a mouth, but a stomach!! For a moment, Jeffy’s life passed before my eyes. He began to pale as we made our way out, even his freckles seemed to disappear!

He crackled out a weak “wait” as he leaned up against a tractor tire. With a guttural upheaval, his stomach convulsed and out poured the tuna sandwich and orange pop we had for lunch, all speckled with black spots . . . like pepper I thought.

“You’re O.K.?” I asked.

“Yeah. I feel a little better now.” I was relieved to see his freckles gradually return to their tan color.

We walked back to the house in a pensive silence. Just as he opened the screen door, Jeff whispered, “That tasted nothing like Oreos!”